As anyone with a passing familiarity with me, this blog, or Prometheus Radio Project likely knows by now, the Federal Communications Commission was caught hiding some research that we would have loved to have seen in 2003, or anytime after the FCC closed its public comment window on whether or not they should consolidate media ownership in the United States. The FCC, anytime between 2003 and today, could have released two studies that were conducted by staff at the Commission — one that demonstrates that locally owned TV stations devote an additional 20 to 25 percent of their newscasts to local news stories than stations owned by distant conglomerates — and another that shows how sharply the number of individual radio station owners fell when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, widely seen as the most recent and most drastic cause of a paucity of decency, localism, and simple, traditional journalism in American broadcast media.
Why didn’t the FCC, under former Chairman Michael Powell and under current Chariman Kevin Martin, release these studies? Because they demonstrate clearly what Powell and Martin have tried hard to disprove to the courts and Congress (though not to the American people — that when local communities lose local control of their media outlets, their access to the basic tools of democracy falls to the floor.
That’s not a new message — over three million people told the commission, in detail, how deeply it would suck if Clear Channel owned all the stations in their town. Not only would access to our own city councils, schools, and churches dwindle, but our neighbors would lose their jobs, coverage of issues of interest to various minority groups would get a lot worse, and in the event of a disaster, diverse local coverage would become even less local and more consolidated.
Today, Martin finally bent to Boxer’s pressure, ordering a formal study into why the internal reports were shredded, but my instinct is that we should push for a lot more. I’ve been scrabbling with incredible local groups in Senate Commerce districts, groups like Reclaim the Media, in the heart of Seantor Maria Cantwell’s district, to see if any Senators who voted against the poorly-argued and widely-reviled media ownership consolidation package in 2003 would also vote to hold Martin’s renomination until he committed to much more than an official internal study as to why the reports were deep-sixed.
My thinking is this. For low power FM radio, community advocates, churches, civil rights groups, and more had to wait over three years for a study — an independent study commissioned -by- the FCC rather than conducted internally — to clear the way for more low power FM radio stations to be built in America’s big cities, where the broadcast lobby has successfully forbidden them for over six years, despite pressure from the Commission itself and an overwhelming amount of evidence that there is plenty of room for LPFM. We have to battle in Congress now to expand low power FM to America’s big cities, but in the scheme of things, undoing the congressional restriction on LPFM is just a matter of time, because we have an independent study conducted by a third party proving we are right, and thousands of community organizations lined up and fighting for their voice on the airwaves.
What would the same strategy look like for media ownership? We could freeze the media ownership proceeding almost indefinitely if we were waiting for an independent government contractor like MITRE to study the impacts of ownership. This would open a huge amount of time for community members to comment, for local economic studies to be produced and filed onto the docket as well — evidence which is infinitely more valuable not just on the ownership docket but for us as a movement, as we will hear from more and more of our communities the longer they have an official opportunity to make an impact.
In my opinion, the time is ripe to ask for an independent study, conducted by a third party organization, taking as long as necessary to get us guidelines for future regulation of media ownership. If we ask the Senate and the House to force the FCC to commission an independent study on the effects of consolidation — just like Congress did for low power FM — we might change how the FCC regulates media ownership, perhaps breaking the back of the recent trend towards deregulation, consolidation, and a shut-down of community voices.
Because we happen to be right in this case — because whatever evidence the industry tosses onto the record is likely to be baseless and hollow — I don’t see why we wouldn’t want the proceeding to take 2-3 years — as long as it takes the FCC to commission an independent study of
consolidation’s true effects.
While this is going on, and because we now have an extra month to file comments on the current media ownership proceeding (until December 21st), we need to be pushing to make sure that as many comments as possible get into this docket. One way that Prometheus discussed in its recent statement on the last shredded study that came to light was to make sure that the brilliant, diverse, and evidence-heavy comments filed onto the FCC’s localism docket are combined with the media ownership docket of 2006. As the lawyers at the Media Access Project always tell us — the FCC and the laywers representing us can always use clear stories describing how consolidation impacted their communities to push for specific rule changes. The localism docket is packed with comments like that, from Hawaii to Maine.
I heard a rumour that the long-overdue FCC cable ownership proceeding would be included in the current package of broadcast ownership rules the FCC is looking at on 06-121. That means that the testimony being collected by projects like Free the Flyers (by my friend Josh Breitbart) which is gathering microlocal information about how cable consolidation is hurting people in Philadelphia, my hometown, could impact how the FCC regulates cable here and around the country, if it is submitted to the Commission. Other powerful projects like Youth Media Council’s community review of KMEL, the People’s Station, and the media monitoring of the Media Empowerment Project‘s initiatives in North Carolina, Detroit, and San Antonio, could give the FCC the wherewithal to change how the market looks in those communities, just by the FCC taking the data that their communities have already gathered into account.
I feel like these reports, buried by the Commission but coming to light just as they try again to prove the impossible — are tools that our movement can’t afford to wield incorrectly, and without the full brunt of our power behind them. Stay tuned…